Thomas Jefferson and Freedom of Religion

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Thomas Jefferson - Third President of US

Historians continue to debate Jefferson’s personal religious views; but there is no doubt about his commitment to religious freedom for all.

Early in his political career, Jefferson set forth his belief that governments had no legitimate authority in matters of religion. He wrote: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. . . . Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error. . . . It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”

Absolute Freedom of Religion

Even earlier, in 1777, he had drafted a bill to establish religious freedom in Virginia. The key paragraph stated: “We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Separation of Church and State

During his second term as president, Jefferson was asked by the clergy of several churches to proclaim a day of prayer and fasting. He declined to do so, nor would he even recommend to the states that they proclaim such an observance. He wrote to one of the ministers: “Fasting and prayer are religious exercises. . . . Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it. . . . Be this as it may, everyone must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U.S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”

Religion Professed and Religion Practiced

Late in his life he wrote, “The population of my neighborhood is too slender, and is too much divided into other sects to maintain any one preacher well. I must therefore be contented to be a Unitarian by myself, although I know there are many around me who would become so if once they could hear the question fairly stated.” The question Jefferson was referring to was the nature of God; and he came down firmly on the side of the Unitarian, as opposed to the Trinitarian, position. But theology was really of only marginal interest to him. He once wrote, “It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read.”